ALLEN PARK, Mich. — When you set out to write something positive about the Detroit Lions, there’s got to be a certain amount of wishful thinking involved. And so what, really? The Lions being mostly rancid for generations seems cruel and unusual punishment for any fan base, never mind this good one, so when you see signs the franchise might actually be competent, you leap on it. Like, well, a lion on wagyu.
As a Lions’ May OTA workout finished and 50-some players filed off the field in small groups, player after player came to greet Detroit GM Brad Holmes on the edge of the field. “Bossman!” one said with a big hug. Fifteen, 20 players embraced or bro-hugged or fist-bumped, some stopping for five seconds, some for a minute. This was not the dog days of training camp, or a Wednesday practice with the team on a four-game losing streak, but still it was a little unusual to see this affection for a general manager. PDAs with GMs are not all that common in the world I cover.
“Good observation,” Holmes said when I asked him about it later. “We’ve got a really good group, a group of men who are in this for the right reasons, who really want to win and invest the time in their team. Sometimes we talk about deeper things. I’ll tell them about books I’ve read, lessons I’ve learned. I care about them as people.”
The Lions have won one playoff game in the last 60 years—two less than the Bengals won last January—and we all know that the players being cool with the general manager won’t equate to wins. But it says something to me that players on a team with 11 wins in the last three years might actually like where they are.
This team has some momentum after a competitive end to 2021; Detroit was 3-3 after Dec. 1. I’ll be surprised if they’re not close to .500 this year. Close, to me, is seven or eight wins.
“We kind of feel like we may be Rich Strike here,” head coach Dan Campbell told me.
Rich Strike, the Kentucky Derby winner, who raced to the upset of upsets in that weird, wild race back in May.
“He was 16th with 33 seconds left in the race,” I said.
“One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time,” Campbell said. “It was impressive. It was beautiful.
“I just think I’ve got guys like Rich Strike. Every time we hear the S-O-L, same old Lions, and all the stuff, I think it fuels our fire. We love it. I think that’s how we all feel. That’s how we all talk. That’s how we all think. There’s nothing fake about it.”
Rich Strike passed the favored horses in the final seconds of the Kentucky Derby. I’m not even going to mention that the Lions close the 2022 season in Week 18 at Green Bay.
Happy to be back in the saddle for another season of Football Morning in America. As we approach the 25th anniversary of this column—I started Monday Morning Quarterback at Sports Illustrated in 1997 and transitioned to FMIA here at NBC in 2018—we’ve got some compelling stories to follow in the run-up to the NFL season. My training camp trip will start in Las Vegas later this week. The Raiders … that’s a really interesting story to kick it off.
There will be time to write about Deshaun Watson more than I do this week. Because that story is still very much up in the air, I’ll touch on it here but wanted to bring something from the field to kick off the fifth FMIA season.
I’m more bullish on the Lions than the wiseguys are, more bullish than the NFL is. Detroit’s the only team in the NFL without a primetime game this year, and the Lions are booked for zero network doubleheader windows—the late Sunday afternoon games shown nationally. When the NFL came out with its schedule, the anonymity of the Lions was an exclamation point. Seventeen games, 17 starts at 1 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. ET. The league did assign the Lions to HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but that’s no sign that playoffs are nigh. Most often, Hard Knocks is about which team the league can arm-twist hard enough to do it.
Hard to blame the Howard Katz scheduling team for consigning the Lions (11-36-2 in the last three years) to Siberia. Everyone wonders about quarterback Jared Goff, everyone wonders about last year’s 31st-rated scoring defense, everyone wonders about how much impact No. 2 overall draft pick Aidan Hutchinson can provide on said defense, and everyone wonders whether the Dan Campbell Way will be more emotional schtick than true winning leadership. I wonder too.
But when you look at teams and try to project the future—and when you try to project a few out-of-the-box things that make sense the following season—you land on teams that showed promise late the previous year and had a good offseason. Check and check for the Lions. And when I visited the Lions in the spring, I saw some things that I did not see in the Matt Patricia Lions (which admittedly is a low bar):
The ’22 Lions fought to the end. Patricia’s 2019 team was 0-9 after Halloween. The Patricia/Darrell Bevell team went 1-6 down the stretch in 2020 and surrendered 30 or more points in their last six games. Last year, the Lions were 0-10-1 entering December, going absolutely nowhere. They finished 3-3, routing the playoff Cardinals. They showed up. They beat the Vikings at :00 on a Goff-to-Amon-Ra St. Brown TD pass. I know Detroit lost in routs to Denver and Seattle late in the year, but players who are mailing it in don’t play the way these guys did down the stretch.
These players respect and will play hard for Campbell. So last year Campbell was tough on the inconsistent Goff—and rightfully so. But who did Goff look to hug after that euphoric win over the Vikings? Campbell. “That’s the way to throw it when we needed it, m—–f—–!” Campbell yelled into Goff’s earhole on the field.
Buy-in. “People outside the building can’t see it, obviously,” Goff told me. “But we have a plan, and we’re all-in. People see some of what Dan says, and that’s great. But I can tell you—Dan knows what the hell he’s talking about, and he’s got the respect of that [locker] room.”
“2021 won’t be in vain, I promise you that,” Campbell told me after this spring practice I saw.
“I know that people are probably tired of hearing foundation and the culture, but I do feel like we set that in year one. I do feel like that for us was the primary goal. We have to create our own style, our own identity, our own culture of who we are, what we accept, what we don’t accept, and now let’s build from there. Now, in year two, we feel like we have that foundation built now. Let’s start stacking on top of it.”
Culture. It’s such an amorphous thing. With Campbell and Holmes, I think the best way to describe it is: We’re never taking a play off, we’re going to import players who love to play, we’re going to be very physical, we’re going to stay together, and nobody’s going to make an excuse. That last thing, about excuse-making, interests me. When coaches get fired, often they have a litany of games they coulda/woulda/shoulda won. You hear it all the time.
You won’t hear it from Dan Campbell, or from his players. Example: Baltimore 19, Detroit 17. Justin Tucker’s 66-yard field goal, which hit the crossbar and bounced over, on the last play of the game beat the Lions last October. Seemed cruel. The officials clearly missed a 40-second clock violation by the Ravens in the closing seconds that would have resulted in a 10-second runoff and time expiring—and a 17-16 Detroit win.
Lots of reasons for the Lions to feel jobbed after that game, but Campbell told me he won’t stand for it.
“So Baltimore, what I want to get across is that stuff, ‘Ah, the ref should’ve stopped it, the play clock ran out,’ it’s all irrelevant. What matters is we lost. We caused that. They earned it. We didn’t earn it. We had them exactly where we wanted. We had a sack. The clock’s running. We got them in the fourth down and forever. They executed, and we didn’t. I think those things are important. We don’t want guys that have excuses. We don’t want to talk about excuses. We don’t want to talk about ‘we got screwed.’ To me, winners find a way to win.”
Oldest cliché in football. But it’s been spouted by the best to ever do it. In the end, you are what your record says you are, and no one’s changing the score on Tuesday.
In many ways, 2022 for the Lions is about 2023. This year’s a proving year for Jared Goff—who probably will have a plus receiving corps by Thanksgiving in St. Brown, D.J. Chark and the rehabbing Jameson Williams, plus tight end T.J. Hockenson. That group is more than solid. If Goff plays at a B level and proves his worth, great. If he doesn’t, the Lions save $20.65 million on the 2023 cap by jettisoning him next March. Williams, who might have been the first wideout picked had he not torn his ACL in the College Football Playoff, won’t be rushed this year; drafting him was a long-term play by Holmes. Hutchinson will have expectations this year, but it’s rare that rookie edge players are stars in year one. And Holmes will have two first-round picks again next year.
I wasn’t crazy about Holmes taking on Goff and his big contract after his shaky end with the Rams. But he had to do it if he wanted the two first-round picks. The reality now is that the deal is Stafford for Goff, Jameson Williams and a 2023 first-round pick, give or take the millions for Goff and some other draft tentacles. If the two ones next year have to be packaged for a QB in the draft, then it’d be Stafford for Williams and a new quarterback. And man, there’d be pressure on Holmes to pick the right QB of the future, and on the QB to produce at a playoff level. That’s some pressure.
Goff knows this is a crucial year in his football life. It’s already been an eventful 2022. In his California house on Super Sunday, Goff watched Matthew Stafford, the man who replaced him (and who he replaced here), win a Super Bowl on the SoFi home field Goff had christened a year earlier. “No bitterness—I guess that’s the way people would expect me to feel,” Goff said. “Happy for my former teammates and coaches, but as a competitor, of course, I want to win one too.” The Lions promoted tight ends coach Ben Johnson to offensive coordinator, and then drafted Williams in a first-round shocker in April.
But we still don’t know if Goff can put a stranglehold on the job in 2022. He did leave a positive impression down the stretch in 2021, going 3-1 in his last four starts (103.3 rating, 67-percent accuracy, 26.5 points per game). Goff’s Detroit future—and probably his starting future in the NFL—will depend on whether he can be a consistent starter and fourth-quarter impact player with his rookie coordinator calling the shots. Goff needs to be better, much better, in crunch time. TD-interception ratio in the first three quarters of games last year: 16-to-3. In the fourth quarter: 3-to-5.
I expect the Lions to emphasize short and intermediate accuracy in the Johnson offense, because that’s where Goff is efficient. That could change when the game-breaking Williams comes back. (There’s no projection right now, but post-Thanksgiving is a safe bet.)
“I think Goff’s in a real good place.” Campbell said. “Finished strong last year. I like the fact that we’ve got pieces around him that I think are going to help pull the most out of him. We’ve got some pieces here that complement each other that really will help him be the best that he can be. Listen, he’s an accurate quarterback. That’s what he does well. He can throw the football and he can put it right on the money.”
We’ll see. One story about the man who could help save Goff that I learned here:
Holmes, in almost two decades with the Rams climbing the scouting ladder, adopted this drafting mantra: Don’t pick hurt guys in the first round. Too risky. Williams played just one season at Alabama after transferring from Ohio State, but his 19.9-yards-per-catch average on 79 catches vaulted him to strong first-round candidate as 2022 dawned. But on Jan. 10, in the national title game, Williams tore his ACL.
On an April Sunday, three months after the injury and a couple of weeks before the draft, Holmes took a free day to watch the top receivers—including Williams. He sat home, just him and the video. And he fell in love with Williams, over all the other receivers. “I had Jameson in his own box,” Holmes said. “You want to be as sure as possible with first-round players, of course, and I was absolutely convicted on Jameson … the speed, how fluid he was, how confident he played. I consulted with our medial team, and they felt it was a clean ACL tear.
“So now I had to get comfortable with picking an injured player. I thought, I can’t preach to our organization to be open-minded with their decisions if I’m not going to be open-minded myself.”
The thought of having a franchise receiver for, say, a few games this year and maybe eight years more outweighed the risk of Williams breaking down again to Holmes. He didn’t have to convince Campbell, who also felt Williams was well worth a first-round pick. Then it was up to Holmes to move up to a spot to get him from late in the round. It cost the 32nd and 34th picks (other picks were involved) to move to the 12th slot and, God forbid, Holmes traded with a division rival to do it. He moved up 20 slots in a deal with Minnesota. “I’m not into the old-school, archaic way of never trading within the division,” Holmes said. “It made a ton of sense for both teams.”
On New Year’s Day, Hutchinson and Williams were lock top-10 picks. Maybe top-five. The Lions got them second and 12th overall, with the obvious asterisk on Williams, and they’re euphoric. Hutchinson’s that rare player who actually wanted to get picked by Detroit, his hometown team. That was his choice, and his family’s. Good sign for the Lions. Hutchinson, at Michigan, was a strong run player who also was a terror on quarterbacks. Detroit allowed 31 TD passes and a pathetic 101.0 passer rating last year, so the need for Hutchinson to be impactful right away is great.
This is time of the column for the pithy quote summing up the optimism of a long-downtrodden team. I don’t have one. This team will be better, without question. This team will be significantly better only if Goff is consistently productive, and if he bonds well with the new coordinator, and if he gets familiar fast with Jameson Williams—whenever he returns. Those are big ifs. But that’s the truth about the 2022 Lions, who should be a fascinating watch.
While I was away, the NFL world kept spinning. This stuff happened:
The Deshaun Watson suspension moves close to decision day. The NFL has concluded its investigation into the new Cleveland quarterback, accused of sexual assault by 25 massage therapists in the Houston area. Watson has spoken to league investigators and to the arbitrator in the case, Sue Robinson, a former federal judge, and a decision about the length of suspension is expected before the end of the month. The league wants an indefinite suspension and would like to see Watson miss most, if not all, of 2022, minimum. After all but four of the complainants settled their civil cases with Watson in June, it seemed the case was on course for a milder sanction of Watson—multiple games but not a full season. But with Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times reported Watson had booked massage appointments with at least 66 women from 2019 to 2021, the suspicions supported by many of the women gained traction. If the league, or Robinson, doesn’t come down hard on Watson, with all the accusatory evidence in the public sphere already, it will look like a giant whitewash.
The Texans paid to rid themselves of the Watson headache. Did the Texans help Watson book massage appointments knowing many of the therapists had had unpleasant experiences with the star quarterback? We may never know the truth there. But it’s pretty creepy that the franchise wrote a check to get rid of the problem, which the Texans did last week when they settled with 30 women who accused Watson of impropriety. This whole story stinks, and Watson’s former and current teams are feeling the heat right now.
Baker Mayfield traded to Carolina. “No animosity toward Cleveland,” Mayfield said in his introductory Carolina press conference. Suuuuure, Baker. The Browns got a fifth-round pick that could rise to a fourth from Carolina for Mayfield, who will duel (and, I assume, win at some point) for the starting QB job in Charlotte with Sam Darnold. This seemed inevitable once all the other musical chairs for quarterbacks got filled. In some ways, it’s a sad end for a guy who was drafted to make the Browns competitive, and in his last significant game as a Brown did exactly what the Browns drafted him to do: He beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a playoff game with the head coach and offensive guru back in Cleveland with COVID. Kind of cool that the season-opener is Cleveland at Carolina on Sept. 11.
Raiders try to clean up a messy front office. In hiring the first Black woman franchise president in league history, Las Vegas native Sandra Douglass Morgan, Raiders owner Mark Davis is trying to buy the stability he hasn’t had since the departure of president Mark Badain one year ago this week. Dan Ventrelle took over for Badain and was dismissed this year after complaining of a hostile work environment. So Morgan will be asked to do much of what Jason Wright was asked to do in Washington when he took over as president in the midst of the Daniel Snyder crisis: fix a floundering franchise. The difference with the Raiders, of course, is that the football team should contend this year, something that looks unlikely in Washington.
Heinz Field no more. No one can knock the Steelers for taking $10 million a year for a stadium naming rights deal, but Acrisure Stadium doesn’t have nearly the same ring as a loyal hometown company, Heinz. It’s been Heinz Field since the opening of the new place in 2001, and there weren’t many stadium names as synonymous with the team as this one.
Is Matthew Berry bound for NBC? In my last column June 6, I forecast Berry being a free-agent this summer, and it came to pass last Monday. I don’t understand ESPN letting the biggest name (by far) in the fantasy football business walk away, and I probably never will. I expect NBC (as Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported) to land Berry, and if so, I expect that he will be a significant part of the Football Night in America show—in both fantasy-forecasting and football-oddsmaking stuff. If that happens, there will be two new faces on the Sunday night show: new analyst Jason Garrett and Berry.
Von Miller signed for six years and thinks he can play for six years. In most circles, this is considered lunacy: a player who missed 18 games in his age-31 and -32 season thinking he can play full seasons at 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 and 38. “Tom Brady’s done it, Bruce Smith has done it. My intention is to play the whole thing out,” Miller said, per Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News. Good for him. It would be great to see him do it. But Miller missed 18 games in his age-31 and -32 seasons due to injury; Brady, of course, missed zero games due to injury between 32 and 37, and Smith missed two. So I think the actuarial tables won’t like the odds of him playing the next six years healthy in Buffalo.
“A year-long suspension would confirm what this whole thing has been from the beginning: a mistake.”
—Zac Jackson of The Athletic, who covers the Browns and formerly worked for the team’s website, on the franchise’s marriage to Deshaun Watson.
“It doesn’t make me feel any better when someone comes up and says, ‘That was the greatest game I’ve ever seen.’ It’s like, we lost.”
—Bills quarterback Josh Allen, on the “Bussin with the Boys” podcast (via Pro Football Talk), on the AFC Championship Game loss to Kansas City. It still stings, evidently.
“We might not have the special talent [at quarterback] that we’ve had. But we’ve got capable dudes. And we’ve got a team. I just view the challenges of what lies ahead—I’m looking forward to the anxiety associated with that uncertainty … All that cool stuff being said, you know. Scary.”
—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, on “The Pivot” podcast, on missing Ben Roethlisberger. Enlightening discussion of lots of things by Tomlin, with three former players led by his ex-safety, Ryan Clark.
“They don’t let me host. I told people a long time ago that when [Mike Greenberg] isn’t there, they should let me host Get Up. ‘Y’all don’t think I can read a damn teleprompter? I can read a prompter. You think I can’t facilitate a conversation?’ But I don’t get to do it. Why? Because I played football. I’ve got a journalism degree, too.”
—Ryan Clark, the former Pittsburgh and Washington safety, on spreading his wings as one of the hosts of “The Pivot” podcast, in a smart story by USA Today’s Mike Jones.
“Apparently, Mr. Snyder is in France, where he has docked his luxury yacht near a resort town. That should tell you just how much respect he has for women in the workplace.”
—Congressional Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, on Washington owner Daniel Snyder not showing up for a hearing on the sex-harassment and dysfunction accusations against the franchise.
“Joe Burrow is the closest thing I have seen to Peyton Manning.”
—NBC’s Chris Simms.
Everything you need to know about the crapshoot that was the 2018 draft:
Cleveland took Baker Mayfield first overall, and the Jets took Sam Darnold third overall. In a week or so, they’ll start battling it out to be the starting quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.
That’s weird enough. But the other thing that’s notable about the 2018 draft is that, all things considered, picks 11 through 20 are better than picks one through 10 after four seasons.
I’m open to arguments here, but how I’d rate the first 10 and second 10 of the 2018 draft. Players in italic are not with their drafting team in 2022.
Picks 1 through 10
1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland: C-plus
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, NY Giants: Incomplete (21 missed games due to injury)
3. Sam Darnold, QB, NY Jets: D
4. Denzel Ward, QB, Cleveland: B-plus
5. Bradley Chubb, edge, Denver: Incomplete (24 missed games due to injury)
6. Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis: A-minus
7. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo: A
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago: B
9. Mike McGlinchey, T, San Francisco: B-minus
10. Josh Rosen, QB, Arizona: F
Picks 11 through 20
11. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Miami: A-minus
12. Vita Vea, DT, Tampa Bay: A-minus
13. Daron Payne, DT, Washington: B-plus
14. Marcus Davenport, DE, New Orleans: B
15. Kolton Miller, T, Las Vegas: B-plus
16. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo: B-minus
17. Derwin James, S, L.A. Chargers: Incomplete (29 missed games due to injury)
18. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay: A-minus
19. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas: C-minus
20. Frank Ragnow, C, Detroit: B-plus*
The best player from the top 20 in the 2018 draft was picked in the top 10—Josh Allen, at seven. But in overall quality, I’d grade eight players in the second 10 at B-minus or better, with five graded that way in the top 10.
It’s all subjective, of course. But the meh overall play of Mayfield and Darnold, at least to this point, drags down the top of the 2018 draft.
In June, Aria Hutchinson, the sister of Aidan Hutchinson, the second pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, was crowned Miss Michigan.
So, someone in the family did get picked number one in 2022.
What Carolina traded to acquire its top three quarterbacks:
• Baker Mayfield (July 2022): A conditional fifth-round pick in 2023.
• Sam Darnold (April 2021): A sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.
• Matt Corral (April 2022): A fourth-round pick in 2022 and a third- in ’23.
Interesting. I’d put my money on Mayfield to win the starting job. If so, Carolina spent a 5 on the starter (which could rise to a 4), and a 2, 3, 4, 4 and 6 on his backups.
My wife and I flew a lot on vacation, making up for some Covid-delayed trips, including a 40th-anniversary jaunt to Italy. I am pleasantly surprised—shocked, really—to report we experienced zero problems.
In June, we flew to London and then to Rome, and then from Rome back to New York. Three flights (Delta, the former Alitalia, Delta), zero delays. Zero long lines to fight at JFK, Heathrow and Rome.
We flew LaGuardia to Chicago, round trip, Delta, around the Fourth of July. All good on the way there, and we were early coming home … when the only issue of our time away hit. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot said after we’d been sitting at the gate for 10 minutes, no sign of a jet bridge. “You probably are aware of the issues the airlines have been having recently. Unfortunately, this is the first day on the job for our jet-bridge operator, and he felt like he needed some help. So someone is on the way to help.” Ten minutes. Later, we deplaned. Now that was pretty cool transparency. We gave the pilot and crew a big hand for it, and for, at least as I saw it, performing well with lots of pressure and anger at the airports in the last couple of months.
I flew to Los Angeles on some personal business last week. Delta again. Morning rush hour. No lines at security. We did have a 10- or 15-minute delay because of a flat tire on the landing gear. But the flight, due in at noon in L.A., arrived at 11:56. On the return the next day, on time again.
I plan to have some other vacation thoughts, including a pleasant surprise at Wrigley Field, in next week’s column.
While Carolina got better today, it won't happen overnight for Baker Mayfield to learn the Offense. This is a short term marriage of convenience and it's difficult for a QB to have a mastery level of the Offense after missing the entire offseason.
— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) July 6, 2022
Mike Tannenbaum, former NFL GM, runs the NFL think-tank site 33rd Team.
Sox give “Home Run For Life” for 7-year-old Beau Dowling, who was diagnosed with high-rush neuroblastoma as a toddler, recently underwent treatment for thyroid cancer: pic.twitter.com/XtxOpoOFqg
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) June 25, 2022
Mark Gonzales is a Chicago baseball writer.
When I spent two days with Hank Goldberg in January 2020, he shared the details of his amazing life and then asked, "If I were selling tickets to my life, would you buy one?" Answer: I'd buy one for me and everyone I know. RIP Hammerhttps://t.co/Rnzdp45rHC
— Gene Menez (@genemenez) July 4, 2022
Menez writes for CBS SportsLine, and he penned this terrific tribute to Hank Goldberg, the sports insider and gambling maven, when Goldberg died on July 4.
Great passage in Menez’s tribute to Hammerin’ Hank:
Four nights before the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Goldberg, who provided horse racing analysis for ESPN at the time, had his annual dinner at Umberto’s pizzeria with trainer and longtime friend Nick Zito. That year, Zito had entered a promising runner named Birdstone in the demanding 1½-mile Belmont, but the colt was coming off a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and was a double-digit longshot. He was set to face the undefeated and ultra impressive Smarty Jones, who was looking to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and had been installed as the heavy 2-5 morning-line favorite.
“Nick said, ‘This horse that I have has been training his eyeballs out in Saratoga, and nobody knows it,'” Goldberg recalled. “He said, ‘The race really sets up for him.’ He said Smarty Jones’ jockey [Stewart Elliott] would screw up on the backside. ‘Our horse will be off-the-pace and will run down Smarty Jones. Trust me.’ So I figured, what the hell?”
Goldberg used Birdstone in his Pick 4, daily double, exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagers. Smarty Jones left the starting gate at 3-10, while Birdstone went off at 36-1, the third-longest shot in the nine-horse field.
The race played out exactly as Zito had predicted, with Elliott moving prematurely on Smarty Jones and Birdstone surging past in the final strides of the race. Goldberg won $24,000.
Deshaun Watson said he wouldn't settle so he could clear his name … He wrote large checks to 20 alleged sexual assault victims today.
NFL happy because he's closer to throwing TD passes again.
Browns happy — they gave him largest guaranteed deal ever to help write checks.🤮
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) June 21, 2022
Tafur covers the NFL for The Athletic.
Becton's shirt has words like "fat, lazy, out of shape, injury prone" written around "Big Bust." He said those are some of the things he's been called.
— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) June 15, 2022
Brian Costello covers the Jets for the New York Post. Mekhi Becton is a worry for the Jets.
Amen. From Rob Neal: “Why is it every preseason the NFL holds voluntary workouts and we get subjected to ‘Player X isn’t attending’ breathless articles and media weigh-ins about who is and who isn’t there? I get the 24-hour media cycle and non-stop NFL push for news but this is such a nothing burger. Truly, fans don’t care. The whole narrative of questioning a player’s commitment to their team based on whether they come early to work out with their team is overwrought and stupid.”
I’ve been saying this for years. It’s one of the reasons running The MMQB, my website at Sports Illustrated, got so draining. Because so many reporters cover pro football exclusively, and because there is such competition in the field, much more stuff gets covered. So now, because football media is working in May and June, camp attendance becomes news. Somehow, some way, the people who are covering the sport have to find things to write and talk about.
Here’s the way I look at “news” in the 10 weeks from about May 5 to July 15: I don’t. When I see that Lamar Jackson is not attending voluntary workouts and someone is parsing what it means, I immediately think: There is absolutely, positively no way that, in the midst of a three-game losing streak in November, anyone will write or say, Baltimore is in the toilet because Lamar Jackson didn’t practice with the team last May. If anyone actually would say that, he/she would immediately be shouted down as an excuse-maker. So it would be nice if every team had perfect attendance at every off-season event, but there’s a reason the things are called “voluntary.” Anyway, that’s my take, Rob.
Done with the Browns. From Ken Gilroy, of Cleveland: “I’m a lifelong Browns fan in my fifties and, for the life of me, I just can’t bear the idea of watching another Browns game. This is the first time I can remember that I haven’t once read or watched a game/player-related piece on the team in the runup to the regular season, and I don’t plan on paying attention once the schedule begins, either. The reason behind this personal blackout: I’m disgusted by the Deshaun Watson signing. I’ve got five sisters and two daughters, and there’s no way I believe that 24 unrelated women are fabricating eerily similar stories about one man’s predatory behavior. Am I an outlier, or are you hearing from other fans who are giving up on the Browns and the NFL because of this classless signing?”
I don’t think you’re an outlier, Ken. But that’s a gut feeling based on what I’ve read. I haven’t taken the temperature of Browns fans and have not been to Cleveland since the signing. I will be there in training camp, and will certainly ask around about the effect of the signing and—in my opinion—the ridiculous guaranteed contract that protects Watson in the event of a suspension, which is surely coming. A good friend of mine texted after I wrote my column highly critical of the Browns after the trade and the $230-million contract. He told me he’s done with football. Now, he may be or he may not be. But that’s the kind of emotion I heard when this trade and signing happened.
Good messages in the grad speeches. From Jeff Scholl: “Appreciate you sharing the graduation speeches. Louis Riddick had a great message that many people need to hear at all stages of our lives: We may take a path simply on belief not knowing where it will take us. I love the ‘Life is service’ message from Elizabeth Bonker [the autistic Rollins College student], referencing Fred Rogers. I will be 59 next week and am working to find a bridge from where I am now to wherever life will take me next. I believe God is always sending us answers and inspiration and these two messages hit a note for me.”
Thanks, Jeff. There’s a reason I led the column with Riddick and had the Rollins student up high.
A Canadian checks in with a good lesson. From Jim Cameron: “One of the greatest speeches I ever received was very short but very effective. When I was in grade six my teacher told me: ‘James, nothing good will ever become of you.’ Fortunately for me I’m wired wrong and it became incredibly motivating. There were other hiccups. My parents decided when I entered high school that I would be forced into general classes which meant that university would not be an option. Luckily for me that was enough motivation and I spent four summers in school upgrading my education just for the chance to go to university. I had worked so hard both scholastically and work-wise, a physical job that took a lot of me, often working 35 to 40 hours a week while attending high school. This too was incredibly motivating and became a part of who I am. I never went to my [college] graduation ceremony, so I never heard the commencement speeches. I know I missed out on some things, which is most likely why I tear up reading these speeches.”
Great note, Jim. Thanks. Your story reminds me a bit of Tom Brady’s. Getting drafted 199th overall, getting drafted after Spergon Wynn, were things that got burned into his brain, and they motivated him the way that teacher in sixth grade motivated you. We all find strength from slights. Good for you that you were able to parlay those slights into a good life.
1. I think I owe major thanks to those who did my job for me while I was on vacation with these guest columns:
• June 13: Commencement speeches that resonated with me, led by Louis Riddick’s bet-on-yourself theme at Pitt.
• June 20: Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit on their Amazon Prime Thursday night marriage. Cool to see that Herbstreit’s a bit of an Al fanboy.
• June 27: NBC’s Paul Burmeister, voice of the USFL, with everything you need to know about the spring league’s first year.
• July 4: “Doc G,” a reformed compulsive gambler, on the danger of the omnipresent craziness of now-legalized sports gambling. Friends, this cautionary tale is important.
• July 11: Thirty FMIA readers, from Beaconsfield, England to Sachse, Texas, gave some thoughtful ideas about how to improve the NFL.
Thanks, all of you, for the thoughtful summer reading.
2. I think, assuming Deshaun Watson doesn’t play Week 1, the worst of the nine Sunday early-window games was Cleveland at Carolina … until July 6. The trade of Baker Mayfield to the Panthers that day, and the likelihood that Mayfield will win the starting quarterback job, makes Cleveland-Carolina must-see—at least for a few series. Imagine Mayfield’s motivation to shove it to the Browns that day. This trade makes sense to me. Despite what Carolina people said, they weren’t full of hope that Sam Darnold could be the long-term quarterback. And Mayfield for a season might show enough to earn a contract in Carolina. He’ll have to show a lot. Owner David Tepper doesn’t want to throw more millions at a quarterback without thinking the new guy has a chance to be the long-term guy.
3. I think I keep reading and hearing three words about Lamar Jackson and his stuck-in-cement contract talks or non-talks with the Ravens: Pay the man. I have four words in response: Play this season first. After Jackson’s injury-plagued 2021 season, I remain bugged by his postseason play. He’s 1-3 in four playoff games, with toothless losses to the Chargers (2018 season) and Titans (2019) at home. He’s led the Ravens to 17, 12, 20 and 3 points in those four games (13 points a game) with a 68.3 rating. Do you want to lock in Jackson at $46 million a year, or whatever, with that postseason Sword of Damacles hanging over Jackson? I don’t. Let him play this season out and judge his worth then.
4. I think Rob Gronkowski plays again.
5. I think this is the best line written about football in my time away. It comes from Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, writing about Daniel Snyder’s ownership of the Washington Commanders, and the impression the franchise is giving when it props up Snyder as someone who has learned from his mistakes. Wrote Jenkins: “There’s never any such thing as a cleaned house as long as he’s still in it.”
6. I think Ann Killion wrote a very interesting column in the San Francisco Chronicle on Steph Curry eclipsing Joe Montana—in her eyes—as the pre-eminent Bay Area athlete of her writing career.
7. I think we can debate that for a long time. But her logic is pretty good. Writes Killion:
Like Montana, Curry revitalized a moribund, dysfunctional franchise. Like No. 16, No. 30 has brought four titles in less than a decade to the Bay Area. Like Montana, Curry is a multiple-time league MVP, a Hall of Fame lock, and now has won an MVP trophy of the championship. Like Montana, Curry won two championships with one of the greatest ever (Rice, Durant) but also two without that superstar.
Curry has changed the game. Montana also changed the NFL, but it was primarily due to his collaboration with Bill Walsh and the innovative offense they were able to execute together. Curry changed the NBA because of his unique skill set … He has revolutionized the sport.
Curry has vocal fans in every arena in the association. The NBA is a worldwide product and Curry is a global icon. Curry has made the world move. But mostly, he has made the Bay Area move. With joy, with celebration, with pride that he plays here.
8. I think it’s a mark of a good columnist, writing about Montana v. Curry, that the reader starts a column thinking: “She’s nuts. Montana’s one of the best quarterbacks of all time. No way Curry’s better.” But then you read, and you think, and whether you agree or disagree, you finish it thinking, “Ann Killion made her point, and it’s great logic.”
9. I think the classic exchange of Roger Goodell’s appearance before Congress (when Daniel Snyder tucked his tail and hid in his chickencrap no-show) happened when one of the Congressional committee members, Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), asked Goodell why Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports has been banned from NFL games. So apt, Jim Jordan sticking up for that esteemed journalist Dave Portnoy in a hearing that was supposed to be about the continuing debacle that is Daniel Snyder owning an NFL franchise. Jordan, Portnoy. Perfect together.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Regarding the state of air travel in the United States, I learned a lot from Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, from a conversation he had with a travel expert.
b. Scott Keyes, of Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Thompson the root cause of the problems we’re seeing now is airlines trying to get lean and smart during Covid. They underestimated how ravenous the American public would be to fly again once the worst of the pandemic had passed. Said Keyes:
“Delta shed 30 percent of their employees—almost 30,000 people cut from their staff. American Airlines laid off 30 percent of their staff, through buyouts, early retirements, or otherwise. Airlines were trying to become as lean as possible to reduce those operating expenses with the anticipation that they were not going to be making much money.
“They assumed that this was going to be a six-year recovery period, not an 18-month recovery period. So when travel demand started rebounding much quicker than they anticipated, the airlines were caught flat-footed.”
c. Not satisfactory, but understandable.
d. I have the perfect illustration for all head coaches of the future to use when a team is floundering at midseason, and all seems lost, and there is no hope for a championship. On May 1, the Mississippi baseball team lost to Arkansas to fall to 8-14 in the Southeastern Conference. To this point, Ole Miss was 1-8 against Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. The team finished fifth in the seven-team SEC Western division. Eight weeks after that May 1 loss, Mississippi finished off a two-game sweep of Oklahoma to win the College World Series.
e. Kudos to Ole Miss. What a comeback, and what a story.
f. The Perfect Pushup Story of the Year: Christie Aschwanden of the New York Times on an exercise we should all do. This is the coolest fitness story. So simple, so important.
g. Radio Story of the Summer: Philip Connors, who works as a fire lookout in New Mexico, on what it’s like to watch so much of his beloved countryside burn, in a discussion with NPR. Sometimes it’s instructive to just listen to an eyewitness talk about what he sees as the face of America changes, acre by acre by acre. Connors, a writer by trade, is so good, so expressive. Listen to his voice:
At first, he thought of the lookout job as a paid writing retreat with good views. But over time he became a witness to the changes brought on by a warmer, drier climate.
“The place became my citadel and my solace. And it’s given me so much joy and beauty over the years,” he said. “Now it’s almost like the tables are turned, like it is in need of solace because big chunks of it are being transformed and going away.”
He notices the signs everywhere. At the highest elevations, the oldest conifers used to be snowed in through late March. Now there’s less snow, and the soil is drier.
When he hiked up the mountain for the first time this spring to open the tower, “with every footstep I was sending up little puffs of powder from the soil,” he said. “I had never seen that this time of year.”
Connors said the spruce, pine and fir forests at high elevations are vanishing from his part of the world.
h. We have to start paying more attention to what the thoughtful people seeing this destruction are telling us.
i. Eli Saslow is a Master Dept: The great Washington Post writer found the depravity and desperation of our society on bus route 15 in Denver. This poor 45-year-old bus driver, Suna Karabay, never signed up to be abused like this. She is on the front lines of homelessness, crime, the drug epidemic, the explosion of fentanyl, poverty and the breakdown of civil discourse. That’s a lot to cover. Writes Saslow:
Forty-five years old, she’d been driving the same route for nearly a decade, becoming such a fixture of Denver’s No. 15 bus line that her photograph was displayed on the side of several buses — a gigantic, smiling face of a city Suna no longer recognized in the aftermath of the pandemic. The Denver she encountered each day on the bus had been transformed by a new wave of epidemics overwhelming major cities across the country. Homelessness in Denver was up by as much as 50 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. Violent crime had increased by 17 percent, murders had gone up 47 percent, some types of property crime had nearly doubled, and seizures of fentanyl and methamphetamine had quadrupled in the past year.
She stopped the bus every few blocks to pick up more passengers in front of extended-stay motels and budget restaurants, shifting her eyes between the road ahead and the rearview mirror that showed all 70 seats behind her. In the past two years, Denver-area bus drivers had reported being assaulted by their passengers more than 145 times. Suna had been spit on, hit with a toolbox, threatened with a knife, pushed in the back while driving and chased into a restroom during her break. Her windshield had been shattered with rocks or glass bottles three times. After the most recent incident, she’d written to a supervisor that “this job now is like being a human stress ball.” Each day, she absorbed her passengers’ suffering and frustration during six trips up and down Colfax, until, by the end of the shift, she could see deep indentations of her fingers on the wheel.
j. Read to the end. It’s worth it. Painfully, it’s worth it.
k. Journalism Story of the Week: Jonathan Watts of The Guardian, on the scandal of two journalists who died trying to uncover the truth about the pillaging of the Brazilian rainforest.
l. Watts was a friend of the journalist, Dom Phillips. He wrote this story to bring attention to crimes none of us every see:
Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira have been killed in an undeclared global war against nature and the people who defend it. Their work mattered because our planet, the threats to it and the activities of those who threaten it matter. That work must be continued.
The frontlines of this war are the Earth’s remaining biodiverse regions – the forests, wetlands and oceans that are essential for the stability of our climate and planetary life-support system.
The integrity of these systems is under attack from organised crime and criminal governments who want to exploit timber, water and minerals for short-term, often illegal profits. In many regions, the only thing standing in their way is Indigenous communities and other traditional forest dwellers, supported by civil society organisations, conservation groups and academics.
My friend Dom knew how important this story was.
… The killings will chill journalists and editors covering the environmental frontline, but I hope it will inspire rather than deter. What happened to Dom and Bruno is not a one-off: it is part of a global trend. Over the past two decades, thousands of environment- and land-defenders have been killed worldwide. Brazil has been the most murderous country during that time. Some of the deaths cause a global storm, such as those of Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang and now Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, but most go under-reported and uninvestigated. If anything useful can come from the latest horror, let it be a recognition that these are not isolated cases. Let journalists examine the patterns that link these crimes, let us tell stories off the beaten track, and let us try to find solutions to the planet’s problems, as Dom was trying to do.
m. Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira are international heroes.
n. Cassidy Hutchinson is a national hero.
o. Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman are national heroes too.
p. The truth hurts sometimes. Actually, a lot of times in our recent history. Denying the truth doesn’t make the truth false. It makes those who deny the truth liars. Just another reason that journalism schools are more important now than ever.
q. Steph Curry is a national treasure. Just think: Aside from his clunker of a Game 5 against the Celtics, he made 31 of 62 threes in the other five games of the NBA Championship Series. He was more accurate from three-point range than two-, and almost all of those threes were contested.
r. Sue Bird is a treasure too. Good luck to her in her last season in the WNBA.
s. Now this is some content we could use today, from David Martin of CBS News, reporting on four Army veterans who served in Vietnam being awarded the Medal of Honor by the president. Just listen to the bravery in this piece. Wow.
t. Happy 80th birthday, Dick Shiner. Now there’s a blast from the past. Remember Shiner, who had a fairly undistinguished decade as a sometimes-starting quarterback in the NFL? Shiner’s claim to fame is that he was the Steelers’ quarterback in 1969, when he lost his last eight starts, paving the way for Pittsburgh’s marriage with Terry Bradshaw. Pittsburgh and Chicago tied for the worst records in the NFL at 1-13 in 1969, and in those days, ties in the draft order were broken by coin flips.
u. So, before the Super Bowl in New Orleans in January 1970, 18 days after the Steelers ended their desultory season with a 27-24 loss at New Orleans (Billy Kilmer outdueled Shiner that December day at Tulane Stadium), Ed McCaskey of the Bears and Art Rooney of the Steelers met in a New Orleans hotel ballroom. Pete Rozelle flipped a 1921 silver dollar in the air. “Heads,” McCaskey called. It came up tails. The Steelers got the first pick, and Bradshaw. The Bears traded the second pick—to Green Bay!—for Bob Hyland, Elijah Pitts and Lee Roy Caffey. Between them, that trio played a grand total of two seasons in Chicago. That was one heck of an important coin flip right there.
v. RIP James Caan. My enduring memory is how real he was in “The Godfather.” My favorite role of his was as the dying Bear Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” My winner for Underrated Role of James Caan’s life was as Will Ferrell’s dad in “Elf.” What an actor.
w. Fave Passage of the Summer: Bill Pennington of the New York Times on the crucial moment of the last hole at the U.S. Open, the tournament won by Matt Fitzpatrick with one terrific shot on hole 72:
The pivotal moment, as is common at major championships, arrived as Fitzpatrick stood on the final tee of the 72-hole, four-day tournament while leading by one stroke. Known for his meticulous precision — he has for many years charted the finite details and the outcome of every shot he hits in competition — Fitzpatrick had missed only two fairways to that point in his round.
But his 3-wood on the 444-yard, par-4 18th hole was ripped left and landed in the center of a yawning bunker just off the fairway. His ball was 156 yards from the hole, which was positioned on a plateaued green protected in the front by a cavernous bunker that has ruined many a golfer’s round for decades.
… He pulled a 9-iron from his bag and imagined he was a junior player again.
“I thought: try to hit it close,” Fitzpatrick said, smiling.
The shot soared over the perilous high lip of the bunker he was in and above the crest of the vast bunker guarding the 18th green.
“It was amazing to watch,” said Fitzpatrick, who knew at that instant that he would almost certainly make a par, which he did with two cautious putts.
Matthew Berry. Damn.